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Ever Optimistic Kerry Returns to the Middle East

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is returning to the Middle East for a sixth trip, but may not meet with Israeli and PA officials.
By Elad Benari
First Publish: 7/16/2013, 6:15 AM

Netanyahu and Kerry meet in Jerusalem
Netanyahu and Kerry meet in Jerusalem
Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash 90

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is returning to the Middle East, on his sixth trip to the region as he tries to push Israel and the Palestinian Authority back to peace talks.

Kerry left Monday night for Amman, where he will meet a delegation from the Arab League and Jordanian leaders, a top U.S. official told the AFP news agency.

However, officials were quick to downplay hopes that his return to the region signaled that an announcement was pending on a resumption of the talks, which have stalled since September 2010.

They even could not immediately confirm whether he would meet with top PA or Israeli leaders this time around.

A PA official told AFP that Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will meet Kerry in Jordan.

"It is expected that president Abbas and Kerry will meet in Amman," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"We are waiting to see what new ideas Kerry will bring with him after his last tour of the region," he added.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the full details of the trip were not yet finalized.

"Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Amman, Jordan, departing this afternoon," Psaki told reporters, according to AFP.

He would meet on Wednesday with Jordanian leaders, including King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, as well as Arab League officials to "provide an update on Middle East peace," she said.

They would also discuss the political upheaval in Egypt and the conflict in Syria, and it was expected that Egypt, a key member of the Arab League, would send someone to the talks in Amman.

Psaki downplayed expectations of any announcement of a resumption of talks, but she stressed, "The secretary would not be going back to the region if he did not feel there was an opportunity to keep making steps forward."

Last month the top U.S. diplomat spent four days locked in intensive shuttle diplomacy seeking to coax the two sides to end a nearly three-year stalemate, and said that "with a little more work, the start of final status negotiations could be within reach."

 He left behind a team of top U.S. officials who have been working to remove the last hurdles to fresh talks.

"They wouldn't be there continuing those conversations if the secretary didn't feel there was a path forward, so that's why they've been on the ground," a senior U.S. official told reporters on a conference call, asking to remain anonymous.

Abbas has insisted that Israel recognize the 1949 Armistice Line as a designated border for any future PA state. Israel refuses, as the pre-1967 borders are indefensible and withdrawing back to these borders would guarantee its destruction.

The demand that Israel recognize these indefensible borders as a designated border for a Palestinian state is just one in a long line of preconditions that Abbas has imposed on negotiations. He has also demanded that Israel release terrorists jailed before the 1993 Oslo Accords and that it freeze all Jewish construction in Judea, Samaria and eastern Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called for talks without preconditions and instead is considering "good will gestures" such as the release of PA Arab prisoners or a partial freeze on Jewish building.

On Sunday, Netanyahu phoned Abbas and offered his greetings on the occasion of the start of Ramadan. He told the PA Chairman that he hopes the two will speak not only on holidays and that peace talks will start soon.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asserted that Kerry was "wasting his time" trying to kick-start negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Speaking during an event in honor of the release of a book by journalist Ron Pundak on the Oslo Accords, Olmert said that Kerry “puts too much energy on these trips. Every time one meeting after another, all in order to set conditions for the start of negotiations that will end after one day.”

Olmert added, "We are approaching the stage where the international community will place most of the responsibility over the absence of an agreement on Israel. It will harm Israel's international legitimacy, which can affect our way of life.”

He then went on to imply that Netanyahu would ultimately be the one to scupper any peace agreement, as he would inevitably refuse to accept PA demands for a Palestinian state based on what the indefensible pre-1967 borders.

Hitting back at Olmert in a radio interview, Communications and Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan said the problem in fact lay with the Palestinian Authority leadership

"Despite the blatant disregard Ehud Olmert has for Kerry's shuttle diplomacy trips, there are still, unfortunately, preconditions from the Palestinian side," said Erdan.

"Essentially, the Palestinians are demanding to start negotiations around the finish line. Maybe they can get that from Olmert, but not from Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud government,” he added.